Bashir Ahmad, a resident of Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, admitted his mother for a knee surgery at Srinagar’s Bone and Joint hospital on August 1. Eight days later, doctors informed Ahmad that his mother had been discharged from the hospital.

But Ahmad had no means to take her home.

On the simmering afternoon of Thursday, Ahmad was desperately pleading with the drivers of ambulances arriving at the hospital.

“You have to take a slight detour and drop me home, I will pay you also,” Ahmad told the driver of an ambulance which had arrived at the hospital from Ganderbal district.

For nearly a week, the Valley has been under an unprecedented lockdown: internet and phone lines have not been working since the midnight of August 4. The next morning, the Central government announced its decision to revoke the state’s special constitutional status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Since then, transport has been off the roads, even though the government has not declared a formal curfew.

These restrictions are making it extremely difficult for Kashmir residents to access healthcare.

With phone lines not working, patients marooned inside their homes have been unable to call up ambulances. Those with private vehicles have had to navigate roads barricaded by the security forces.

Hospital officials confirmed that the number of patients coming for treatment had significantly declined. “On any normal day, around 800-900 patients from across the Valley visit the hospital for treatment,” said an official from the Out Patients Department of Srinagar’s Bone and Joint hospital. “Since August 5, around 200-300 patients are able to reach the hospital for treatment and most of them are from Srinagar only.”

A journalist who had travelled from Baramulla to Srinagar recalled what he had seen: an ambulance leaving for Srinagar was packed with three patients when a man approached the driver, pleading to be accommodated.

“When I asked him why he has to go to Srinagar, with wet eyes he said he has an appointment at the hospital today for chemotherapy and he has no means to reach the hospital,” the journalist said.

He recalled meeting a couple who were desperate to travel to Srinagar. “Their son had fell unconscious at his friend’s place and had been rushed to Srinagar hospital where he had been put on ventilator. But they had come to know about it after 36 hours,” he said. “They too were rushing to hospital”.

A security barricade in Srinagar. Credit: AFP

Navigating the security

While ambulances are allowed to move in the Valley, drivers said they faced multiple checks by security forces, considerably delaying the journeys.

“I was stopped by forces at more than a dozen places,” said an ambulance driver from North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. “Even though the government has given us curfew pass and there was a patient in the back, the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] and police personnel stopped us.”

According to the driver, every halt at a security barricade means a delay of three or four minutes. “Such stops during an emergency can prove fatal as every minute is crucial,” he said.

Even when patients are not critical, such stops can be exhausting.

Ali Mohammad Bhat lives in Chowkibal area of Kupwara district along the Line of Control. He needed to take his six-year-old daughter, Seerat, to Srinagar’s Bone and Joint hospital. The child had injured her elbow a few days ago and doctors had inserted pins into her arm for treatment. Those pins had to be removed.

The father and daughter drove out of Kupwara at 8 am on Thursday. They were stopped 10 times by security forces along the 110-km route. They managed to reach Srinagar at 2 pm.

“It took me six hours to complete a journey of 110 km and there was no traffic jam,” he said, sitting on the verandah of the hospital’s Out Patients Department, with his daughter sleeping in his lap.

They were waiting for another patient from Kupwara, who they had run into at the hospital. “He has no means to return home,” explained Bhat, who was going to give him a ride. “Until he gets his checkup done, I will sit here and wait for him.”

Costly journeys

With ambulances running scarce, patients and their families have been forced to hire private cabs at exorbitant prices.

Fifty-year-old Hakam Jan had fractured her leg 16 days ago. On Thursday morning, Jan, with her left leg still under plaster, was discharged from the hospital. However, until 3.30 pm, Jan was still lying on the stretcher in the hospital compound – waiting for any vehicle to ferry her home to the Lethpora area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

“My brother has been pleading with hospital officials to give us an ambulance but there’s none,” said Nasreen Jan, Jan’s daughter. “Now, he has gone to hire a private taxi.”

Jan’s brother returned after some time. He was furious. “It’s very easy to loot a poor man,” he said.

“They [private cabs] are charging me Rs 1,400 for a distance of less than 25 km,” he said, pulling the stretcher on which his mother was lying towards the cab. “I have to give them [the money] because there’s no other option.” He was too angry to give his name to this reporter.

Closing down departments

Members of the Help Poor Voluntary Trust, a non-profit organisation at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, said they were getting dozens of queries from anxious residents who wanted to check on the route they should take to reach the hospital.

A hospital official confirmed that there had been a massive drop in the number of patients, but said he was not authorised to reveal the exact numbers. Another official said that they were only “focusing on emergency patients” and had “almost closed the Out Patients Department” since the flow of patients had been reduced to a trickle.